How To Keep Women Managers On The Corporate Ladder

Throughout the 1980s, according to the Census Bureau, the numbers of woman-owned startups grew at twice the rate of all U. S. business startups. Many of these budding female entrepreneurs weren't so much born risk-takers as refugees fleeing a hostile Corporate America. It's in business' own interest to stop blocking the advancement of women--a message that shines through the Labor Dept.'s recently released "glass ceiling"report.

Labor's 18-month study of promotion practices found that entrenched attitudes prevented women from moving up the corporate ladder--sometimes, not far above entry level. With its report, Labor announced a nationwide crackdown on federal contractors who violate affirmative-action laws, although it has the personnel to conduct only limited probes.

But demographics are forcing senior management to realize it must stop frustrated women execs from shipping out. Skilled white males comprise a shrinking percentage of the labor force--and the customer base. These changes, says Chicago executive recruiter Amanda C. Fox, have led to an upsurge in demand for women. Says Fox: "Companies are not doing this because they are sociallyconscious."

Unfortunately, corporate eagerness to hire female executives doesn't guarantee them equal opportunity. A 1990 survey by Catalyst, a New York-based research firm, found that nearly half of human-resource managers thought women had less initiative than men and were less willing to take risks. Catalyst Vice-President Mary C. Mattis says women also are perceived as being less committed, especially if they are mothers. Says Mattis: "They're seen as people who will not stick around or who will not relocate."

Those perceptions are dead wrong, and another study has the numbers to prove it. A report released last year by Wick & Co., a Wilmington (Del.) consulting firm, indicates that frustration with career progress--not the call of home and child--accounts for most departures by female professionals. Wick found that 73% of women who quit large companies moved to another company; only 7% left to stay at home. Indeed, women are just as tough and committed as their male counterparts, says consultant Marilyn Loden, co-author of the book Workforce America!. But, she says, male managers have to understand that men and women have different management styles. Whereas men often rely on hierarchical, order-and-obey structures, "women get people to work by inspiring them and involving them in decisions." Loden says that "this makes women seem indecisive or unwilling to assert themselves."

To highlight these differences, such companies as Lotus Development, Corning, and U. S. West have set up "value-diversity" programs. In day-long workshops, executives of both genders participate in role-playing exercises or discussion groups designed to search and destroy stereotypical assumptions.

Companies also must review the assignments that are essential to advancement and begin placing more women in them. These usually are the "line positions" responsible for profits and losses: marketing, in a consumer-products company, or plant management, in a manufacturing company. Currently, female managers may rise high--but usually it's in the areas of communications or human resources, which rarely lead to the senior jobs.

MIRROR IMAGE. Male managers would be wise to examine the politics of advancement, as well. Women may have more difficulty developing the alliances that are as important as doing a job well, because older male managers often prefer proteges who are junior versions of themselves, i.e., young men. To break this clubby barrier, management experts suggest formal mentoring programs. At Chubb & Son Inc., a New Jersey insurer, a sponsor gets his assigned female middle manager projects in a variety of areas so that she attains the breadth of experience essential for top jobs.

Companies also should review their procedures when conducting external searches for talent. Male executives must tell recruiters that they aren't necessarily looking for their mirror image, says Ann Ronce, a San Francisco management consultant. "Many executives don't realize how they maintain their own glass ceilings through executive search," she explains.

Progressive companies are also finding ways to reward those who shatter the glass ceiling. Since 1989, Tenneco Inc. has tied a part of an executive's bonus to his or her progress in promoting women and minorities, a policy that has led to a 25% rise in the numbers hired. "If you put their bonus at risk," says Stephen J. Smith, executive director of human resources, "individuals will pay attention."

Demographic changes leave companies little choice but to diversify. And since some men will never feel comfortable letting women into the club, it isn't enough to rely on time. Companies must deliberately change if they want to stop the female brain drain.

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